By Stephen Duane Dean Junior
In 1487, Godfrey O’Donnell killed a Breifre O’Rourke with what was most likely a primitive cast iron hand cannon. Detailed in the Annals of the Four Masters, the text differs on the wording regarding what to call the new weapon. What was less uncertain was that the new weapon could only be trusted in the hands of those loyal to the English state and kept out of the hands of the local Gaels. 355 years later in a debate about what to do about the gun in Ireland in the House of Commons caused one man to remark that ‘ take from honest men the means of defence, and will not deprive the turbulent and the lawless of the means of aggression.’ (ARMS (IRELAND) BILL. House of Commons Deb 29 May 1843 vol. 69 cc996-1063) On January 30 of this year, the Irish Labour whip Ms Hayden stated that ‘it is shocking to think there are criminals – drug dealers and other forms of low -life – who walk around in this country and seem to have no difficulty whatsoever accessing firearms.’
Firearms have always caused consternation when they fall into the hands of those deemed unworthy of their use. Whether a killing field in 1487 or remarks made to reporters in 2013 the debate about the gun has a certain timelessness. Unlike some other commentators this brief piece is not going to on the intent of the founding fathers of the American Revolution, or the nuances of meaning by the framers of the Bill of Rights. Rather, it is to put firearms in a different context. It is about what the gun represents. What is has always represented.
Recently, the recurrent debate on gun ownership has been galvanizing two very different narratives of what the legacy of the right to bear arms is to be and what it might become. Taking a look at a different world entirely may provide an alternative starting point to an often muddled discussion. I will cover a major theme of my own work, and how it might be applied to the current debates taking place in small towns and urban conglomerations throughout America in churches, cafes, bars and boardrooms.
The gun itself embodies violence. Debates around the legitimacy of the ownership or use of the gun are interrelated. Firearms can be understood in the terms of their use in military conflicts between Westphalia nation states. But, for our purposes, both historically and in the current debate, the gun must rather be seen as a way of engaging in politics itself. Violence can be -in and of itself- a political action and guns serves to embody an erosion of the state’s supposed monopoly on violence. To let someone have a gun is a very dangerous expression of trust
Firearms also, by their very nature, politicize wielders of them. Understanding how to define the often amorphous loyalties of those using firearms in particular presents historians with a difficulty, much as it currently presents lawmakers and citizens with difficulty. It is very hard to legislate loyalty or to use coercive measures to force peace into a community. My current project, ‘When a Number of Stout Fellows in not enough: Firearms, Legitimacy and Violence in Eighteenth-Century Ireland’ focuses on the failure to monopolize the gun for a minority over a majority by successive administrations in the same period as most debates about guns in America begin.
However, the debate about the gun began long before 1775 and outside the confines of the 13 American colonies which has provided ample opportunities to think about what the gun can mean. One part of my work has been to reinforce the thought that it is much easier to fetishize the gun as short hand for much larger debates than to think of what guns are for. Guns are designed to inflict harm. Obviously, firearms also can be used for work, recreation or other purposes, but I think this ignores the primacy of the gun as a tool of violence. It has always been the case. The right to bear arms is much more tangible embodiment of the same power given alongside the right to vote. Historically those allowed to bear arms legitimately were those who were loyal enough to be trusted. As the franchise expanded so did the perceived right for those deemed full citizens to have the right to bear arms
A citizen in arms is the leit motif of the republic. The effectiveness of that individual towards the defence of the homeland is not the point. To hold the gun is to hold a piece of the collective agreement of managed violence. The taking away from the individual citizen the opportunity to hold a portion of the collective potential for violence may result in giving away too much. It was this fear that was invoked in the eighteenth century, and one which is being invoked now.
There will always be blood on someone’s hands. Thomas Hobbes disbarred fools, madmen and children from being able to give up their own capacity to do violence to the state in Leviathan. It might be in our interest to allow for the small preservation of the individuals portion of the State’s monopoly of violence as a means of allowing for preservation of freedom, even if we must tolerate fools, madmen and children doing terrible things.
Stephen Duane Dean Junior is in the final stages of completing a PhD in History at King’s College London. Prior to beginning his current project, he completed a Masters of Arts in Intellectual History and Political Thought at Queen Mary and University College London and a Bachelors of Arts from Université du Maine à Fort Kent. When not deciphering handwriting from mean spirted clergymen or libelous scoundrels Stephen can be found haunting the hallways of the Institute of Historical Research.